Daama is the werestoat, a slightly sociopathic, self-absorbed, wildly egotistical descendant of the Wind-God. She is divine, powerfully magical, feeds off praise, and frequently declares herself to be the greatest mother in the universe. Unfortunately, as her son Harsu knows, this is pretty well the opposite of the truth.
As the greatest mother, Daama declares herself worthy of only perfect children. Poor Harsu to not perfect. His face is marred by smallpox scars. While happy to use Harsu as a kind of slave, Daama is ashamed to own him as a son. She steals children, first babies whom she is forced to return by fellow God-like relatives, and then boys, and then girls. As her relatives would not be too happy at her child-stealing, she goes on the run, using a magical gateway that takes them all through time and space.
Her first choice is Zamuna, for his prettiness, but then when he is not admired sufficiently by the villagers (and he grizzles quite a lot) she tires of him and kidnaps Ragnar the Viking boy instead. Then, when Ragnar is too wild and rebellious, she moves on to a girl child Blanche, from the time of Cromwell, who it turns out talks too much. The less than perfect children are kept captive and sedated by magic, in large jars.
Harsu sticks around despite being given an early opportunity to escape by his relatives. At first he is hopeful that his mother will forgive him his imperfections and embrace him as her son. Later, he stays as her helper and sometime confidante because he wants to help the stolen children, and is afraid for them.
Then they arrive in New Zealand, modern times, and Daama plots a new abduction of a lively and talkative neighbour girl called Megan, who shows some interest in Harsu. The two youngsters start to bond. Harsu is determined to prevent Megan being the next stolen child, but Daama has a plan: at the next new moon, she will reward Harsu for his labour and loyalty by turning him into a stoat, so he will be forever perfect and unscarred.
But what Daama doesn’t know, is that while Harsu has been slaving at her command, he has also been watching and learning her magic…
This is a highly imaginative and beautifully written read, sprinkled with dry humour. The strength of the story is probably the disturbing portrait of a the flawed mother, Daama, and how Harsu gradually learns to survive her warped parenting. Harsu is initially desperate for her approval, no matter how cruel and unjust her rejection, and only gradually comes to realize that she will never change. In the end, it is up to him to stop her abductions and appalling treatment of the stolen children.
This darker side to the story – reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, with its grim take on the parent-child relationship – is touched on quite lightly; but taken together with the slow pace at which the drama unfolds, the story is a fairly sophisticated read. The story is billed as being for middle readers, but I suspect many younger children would find the pace a little slow, and the bad mother rather disturbing.
Barbara Else is a playwright and fiction writer, and has also worked as a literary agent, editor and fiction consultant. She won the Victoria University Writer’s Fellowship in 1999, and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2005.
Barbara has edited several collections of writing for children, and was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal in 2016 in recognition of her services to children's literature.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.